Comrade, I did not want to kill you. . . . But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. . . . I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?
Paul utters these words in Chapter Nine to the corpse of Gérard Duval, the French soldier whom he has just killed. Paul realizes for the first time that, despite the dictates of nationalism, Duval is fundamentally no different from him. As Duval becomes a fully realized person in Paul’s mind, as he thinks beyond the man’s weapons to “your wife and your face and our fellowship,” Paul observes, as he does in Chapter Eight among the Russian prisoners, that the war has forced men who are not enemies to fight each other. The propaganda campaigns waged by the opposing governments have convinced many men that their opponents are evil; as such, Paul initially conceives of the French soldier as “an abstraction”—the enemy. Once he understands Duval as a human being, the artificial divisions between the two men become irrelevant. Paul’s sympathy for Duval’s suffering is evident in his address of him as “comrade” and his reference to himself and Duval as “we” and “us,” in opposition to the “they”—those in power, who attempt to deny the essential sameness of men such as Paul and Duval.